Ben Simmons exits with injury and ragged Sixers fall to 2nd straight loss

Ben Simmons exits with injury and ragged Sixers fall to 2nd straight loss


The Sixers have their first losing streak of the season, and they also lost an All-Star to injury Wednesday night.

They fell in Utah to the Jazz, 106-104, and Ben Simmons left early after sustaining an injury. Joel Embiid (27 points on 5 for 16 shooting, 16 rebounds) came back into the lineup after a two-game suspension for a fight last week with the Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns.

The Nuggets are up next for the 5-2 Sixers on Friday (9 p.m./NBCSP).

Here are observations from the loss: 

Simmons exits early 

Simmons left in the second quarter with a right shoulder injury. He was diagnosed with a minor sprain of the AC joint in his right shoulder and will be re-evaluated Thursday. Simmons appeared to injure the shoulder when he fell on his back with a little over 11 minutes left in the first, as you can see in the video above.

Though Simmons hasn’t met early-season expectations offensively, he entered Wednesday’s game with an NBA-best 20 steals.  

The temporary replacement plan

After spending the first four years of his career with the Jazz, Raul Neto played much more than the Sixers would have planned in his return to Utah.

He defended Donovan Mitchell (24 points on 10 for 23 shooting) well overall, forcing him into several contested mid-range attempts during a stint late in the first quarter and early in the second. Neto had a ragged stretch in the third period, sprinting in for a layup attempt that hit the underside of the rim and then dribbling into traffic for a careless turnover on the Sixers’ next possession. He finished with 11 points on 5 for 11 shooting, four assists, four turnovers and three steals in 30 minutes. 

Furkan Korkmaz, who started the second half in Simmons’ place, had six points on 2 of 4 shooting in 24 minutes. 

In Simmons’ absence, Josh Richardson handled the ball more and followed up his worst game as a Sixer (8 points on 3 for 11 shooting vs. the Suns) with his best from a scoring standpoint. He scored 24 points on 8 for 13 shooting.

Not peak Embiid

Embiid wasn’t his sharpest and he looked tired at times, putting his hands on his knees and not exerting effort except when he absolutely needed to. 

A one legged, Dirk Nowitzki-esque shot was the highlight of his night. 

Though Embiid drew 18 free throws, Brown thought he should have had two more in the third quarter and was assessed a technical foul for vehemently expressing that opinion. It was a frustrating game across the board for the Sixers, though they hung around and cut Utah’s lead to two points with a little over two minutes to go after being down by as many as 13 in the second half.

Time to tweak the pick-and-roll defense? 

The Sixers’ preference with pick-and-roll defense has been to “force the ball off the screen” and drop the big man. We’ve seen during this road trip how that approach is often ineffective when the ball handler’s defender fails to work over the screen and falls well behind the play, resulting in open mid-range jumpers. Mitchell made his first four shots of the game Wednesday, including a couple of uncontested mid-range looks off pick-and-rolls. 

While Embiid is an excellent overall defender, he’s not quite as flexible in pick-and-roll coverage as Al Horford. It’s understandable why there’s a team-wide desire to drop the big man into what assistant coach Ime Udoka calls “center field.” 

At some point, though, perhaps the Sixers will consider tempering their guard’s aggression in defending the initial ball screen. Richardson and Matisse Thybulle are skilled at the “rearview contest,” but, with how often the Sixers’ guards are being wiped out of the play, it might make sense to try some more frequent variations to their core philosophy in that area. 

Harris and Horford drop off 

Horford and Tobias Harris combined for 104 points on 56.9 percent shooting during Embiid’s suspension. They faded into the background a bit against the Jazz offensively when Embiid was on the floor, with the odd burst into the spotlight.

The two totaled 23 points on 7 for 25 shooting Wednesday. While the Sixers did attempt to center the offense more around Horford early in the third quarter and ran plenty of pick-and-roll with Harris early in the fourth, both missed some shots they’d normally convert. 

The Sixers’ post offense around Embiid was largely stationary. While that’s in part by design to provide Embiid with outlets in specific floor spots, the Sixers could use a little more movement. It would also help if Embiid held the ball less before making his move — the whole offense sometimes comes to a stop when he’s down low.

In Embiid’s first game back, though, that’s not a serious concern. One can understand his instinct to be deliberate with the ball after not playing a competitive game for a week. 

If Embiid further develops as a playmaker and ball mover, more opportunities will open up for Harris and Horford when the starters are on the floor. 

A bad night on the boards 

The Sixers entered Wednesday’s game having grabbed 55 percent of available rebounds, best in the NBA. 

They got outrebounded for the second straight game, and the margin Wednesday was significant —Utah had a 50 to 42 edge. 

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Sixers Injury Update: Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson out for Saturday's game vs. Cavs

Sixers Injury Update: Joel Embiid, Josh Richardson out for Saturday's game vs. Cavs

The Sixers will be down two starters Saturday night when they return to Wells Fargo Center to play the Cavs.

Josh Richardson will miss his fifth consecutive game with right hamstring tightness, while Joel Embiid is out with a left hip contusion.

A team source told NBC Sports Philadelphia that Embiid reported discomfort after the Sixers' 119-113 loss to the Wizards on Thursday night and is being treated for the injury.

Embiid had 26 points, 21 rebounds and eight turnovers Thursday.

Richardson and the Sixers have been cautious with his hamstring. He told reporters in Washington, D.C., that this is the first hamstring injury he's dealt with and admitted that it's been a frustrating process.

“A hamstring is one of those things where you can think that you’re fine and then you take a wrong step and it’s a week or two-week setback," he said. "I don’t really want to get into that whole cycle. ... It’s just one of those things where I just don’t really know where I’m at most of the time. It always feels like I’m tiptoeing, trying not to do too much.”

The Sixers' preferred starting five of Embiid, Richardson, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris and Al Horford have played just 102 minutes together this season, posting a plus-21.3 net rating. 

Furkan Korkmaz has started the past four games in place of Richardson. Without Embiid, the Sixers will need to plug in another spot starter and perhaps search for further big man depth. Kyle O'Quinn hasn't played since Nov. 23, but he might be called upon vs. Cleveland.

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How Joel Embiid can improve with the subtleties of screening and rolling

How Joel Embiid can improve with the subtleties of screening and rolling

The Sixers, through 22 games, have run the fewest pick-and-rolls in the NBA, and at the worst efficiency

Joel Embiid is in the bottom top 10 percent of the league in efficiency as a roll man. 

None of those stats are encouraging at first glance.

That said, are there any positive signs for Embiid’s progress as a screener and a roller? And how can he get better?

Rolling isn’t always the right option

While Brett Brown said after practice Wednesday that he wants Embiid “screening and rolling more than popping,” rolling isn’t always the right option for the All-Star center.

Because Ben Simmons frequently stations himself in the “dunker spot,” Embiid often needs to float out behind the three-point line for the Sixers to maintain proper spacing.

When opposing big men drop on the pick-and-roll, there’s typically not much to be gained by Embiid rolling.

Embiid pops on the play below against the Raptors, and it’s a reasonable move with Marc Gasol dropping into the paint on Josh Richardson’s drive. Ultimately, the bigger issue is he settles for a mid-range jumper instead of either taking an open three or putting pressure on Gasol to guard a drive to the rim. 

A game-winning variation  

Before Richardson’s hamstring injury, the Sixers were incorporating the action above more into their offense. It’s a basic look — Richardson rubs off a screen to the top of the key, then Embiid steps up to give him a ball screen. 

Embiid’s game-winning dunk on Nov. 12 vs. the Cavs came from a smart variation. After Embiid’s roll to the rim, he set a strong down screen for Tobias Harris, flowing into a perfectly executed high-low.

On most of the occasions Embiid rolls to the rim and doesn’t receive the ball initially, a deep post-up is the next best option. Instead of finding Embiid on the high-low Nov. 15 in Oklahoma City, Al Horford swung the ball to Harris and created a good angle for a post catch. Embiid will score or get fouled in these positions more often than not. 

Getting snug

The “snug pick-and-roll” is, in theory, a way to allow Embiid and Simmons to both be near the rim at the same time without the only result being claustrophobic spacing. 

Embiid set a hard screen on RJ Barrett, forced the desired switch and got an and-one Nov. 29 against the Knicks. 

“We've been trying to do that bit by bit over the years,” Brown told reporters. “I think that you have a deep pick-and-roll with those two, a lot of times they do switch. I thought Ben did a good job of finding that and if they don't switch you got Ben going downhill, and we're trying to just continue to work on his finishing. And it is a look that I think, especially in crunch-time environments, interests me a lot.” 

The obvious problem with the snug pick-and-roll is there’s minimal space for anything to develop. Simmons has little margin for error with his first read. 

Though Embiid eventually had the switch the Sixers wanted against the 6-foot-5 Malcolm Brogdon on the play above, Simmons had already committed to a righty jump hook on Myles Turner and didn’t have room to change his mind. 

Developing the tricks of the trade 

Embiid’s value as a roller increases against teams that aggressively hedge the pick-and-roll.

He didn’t even roll very far on this play from Nov. 8 in Denver — just a couple of feet after screening for Richardson — but the scheme the Nuggets were using meant Will Barton had to tag Embiid before flying out to Furkan Korkmaz. Barton couldn’t recover in time.

Embiid’s chemistry with his new teammates is predictably not yet at an advanced stage. Richardson has a tendency to snake back in the opposite direction of his initial drive, and Embiid still seems to be figuring that out. 

They were on different wavelengths here. 

Since Embiid draws so much respect from opposing defenses, many pick-and-roll actions involving him are going to be inelegant. Especially late in games, teams often know what’s coming and load up to stop it.

He can still be helpful in those situations by focusing on doing the simple things. The technique isn’t textbook on this play, but his screen on Donovan Mitchell gets the job done. 

One of the next steps in Embiid’s evolution as a screener and roller will be applying a few of the dark arts that are prevalent across the NBA, whether it’s stealthily using his upper body like Horford or giving the ball handler space to drive by sealing his man in the lane.

He did the latter well vs. Larry Nance Jr. and the Cavs. 

As a 7-foot, 280-pound player with diverse offensive skills, Embiid is a threat as a roller, at least on paper.

It often won’t be as easy for him as just rolling with purpose to the rim and being rewarded with dunks, but he’s shown he has the ability to help himself and his teammates get good looks. 

For Embiid, it’s clearly important to work on dealing with double teams, refining his post game, limiting turnovers and hitting open three-point shots at a decent rate. 

But the 25-year-old big man also has plenty of room to improve as a screener and roller. 

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